The View From Pluto
Richard Grant, an Englishman, and his girlfriend Mariah moved from Manhattan to the rural Mississippi Delta. Culture shock? It was more like culture electrocution — but he likes it there. Excerpt from the short essay he wrote in the New York Times about it:
Mississippians were generally puzzled by our arrival, but warm and welcoming. As we were unpacking, an African-American tractor driver stopped by and talked for an hour. On the second day, a white family from Pluto came over with a bottle of wine and a selection of guns to shoot. Cathy Thompson, a labor and delivery nurse, had bought an AK-47 for stress relief during menopause. “I don’t know what women in New York do,” she said in a fast-paced drawl. “Probably see a therapist, or get on meds. I got my AK and a T-shirt that said, ‘I’m Out of Estrogen and I Have a Gun.’”
It soon became apparent that a) we held very different political views and b) this was not going to be a problem. Noting our lack of furniture, Cathy went through her storage areas and produced two beds, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs, two armchairs and two wingback chairs. “Y’all can have this stuff on permanent loan,” she said. “And I noticed y’all just have the one vehicle. That’s going to get inconvenient out here, so I want you to drive our Envoy whenever you need to, and think of it as your second vehicle. I’ll show you where the keys are.”
Another neighbor showed up with a cord of split firewood, a bottle of Glenlivet and an engraved silver ice bucket as housewarming gifts. A third insisted on keeping our grass cut for the rest of the summer. This is an aspect of Mississippi that usually gets lost in translation. Because the state is so infamous for its vicious past — Mississippi had the most lynchings, and the most violent resistance to civil rights — it’s hard for outsiders to accept that it’s also a place of extraordinary warmth, kindness and hospitality.
He says that it is very difficult to understand the racial dynamics of the Delta:
Contradictions are like oxygen here, part of the air itself. The Delta is arguably the most racist, or racially obsessed, place in America, and yet you see more ease and conviviality between blacks and whites than in the rest of America. It’s not uncommon to find close, loving, quasi-familial relationships between black and white families who have known one another for generations. They weep together at one another’s funerals, and sometimes name their children after one another. But they still feel awkward about sitting down to a meal together, and both sides enforce the old taboo against interracial dating.
That’s true where I live too. It really is hard to explain — but if you live here, you live the contradiction. You had better be able to accept paradoxes in everyday life, or you will go crazy living here. And you had better be able to accept that life in the Deep South is in some ways like living in another country, not America. You have to read the whole essay to encounter Grant’s tales of Delta eccentricity. This is one of them:
After nearly three years here, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface. Even for a native like our friend Martha, it’s hard to say what accounts for the Delta’s eccentricities. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a dysfunctional third world society in the heart of America. A white pseudo-aristocracy maintains genteel airs and graces amid crumbling towns and black rural poverty reminiscent of Haiti. It’s all stirred up with whiskey, denial and fire-breathing religion. In a blistering exit speech, the outgoing police chief of Greenwood, who is black, denounced the mayor, a white woman, as “Antichrist, Beelzebub, deceiver, destroyer, liar, seven heads and 10 horns on Satan, the Devil himself.”
This was not irony. This was not sarcasm. This was a heartfelt howl from the most Southern place on earth, as one historian described the Delta.
Trust me, you’ll want to read the whole thing. He says they ain’t moving.
Now, treat yourself to the song stylings of Mississippi’s own Mr. Bobby Lounge, singing one of his greatest hits, “I Remember The Night Your Trailer Burned Down.” You’re welcome.
Oh, and here’s a clip of the greatest Southern Baptist who ever was, Mr. Jerry Clower of Yazoo City, Miss.:
(The Grant essay courtesy Prof. Ralph C. Wood, who says Mississippi is “first in literature, last in literacy.”)